Windsor Police say viral outrage, not misconduct, led to officer’s firing

Windsor police officers pepper sprayed U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop in December that resulted in a lawsuit, the firing of one officer and outcry across Virginia and elsewhere. (NBC 12)

Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle said Wednesday he fired an officer involved in a viral traffic stop because video of the incident inspired widespread outrage, not because he initially believed the conduct itself warranted termination.

Riddle was speaking to the media for the first time since details of the stop and subsequent lawsuit were made public last week in a report by The Virginian-Pilot. His remarks drew immediate criticism from the local Isle of Wight NAACP, whose president said she was “appalled at some of the statements made by the town officials as well as the chief of police.”

On Dec. 5, officers pepper sprayed and threatened Army Lt. Caron Nazario after pulling him over because they said they couldn’t read the temporary license plate taped to his back window.

Riddle said he launched an internal investigation three days later, which he said concluded on Jan. 28 with disciplinary action. He declined to detail what that action was, calling it a personnel record, but said both men remained on the force until Sunday, when he decided to fire officer Joe Gutierrez after the incident began drawing national media attention as the latest example of aggressive policing faced by people of color.

Riddle said he worried that because people had seen the video, Gutierrez would no longer be able to work effectively as an officer.

“As things continued to unfold, we got to a point Sunday where I lost faith in his ability to continue to serve the community to the standards we expect,” Riddle said. “We’re a small community, we’re 2,600 people. We know just about everybody here. That’s why we have good relationships within our community itself. … That was destroyed by the social media posting, the media coverage of it — there was no way in my mind he could engage in the community in an effective manner beyond that day.”

Asked to clarify whether he was saying it was outrage rather than Gutierrez’s conduct that led to the dismissal, Riddle said, “As this thing kind of gathered legs and became viral, I personally felt there was no way he could effectively serve our community more at that point.”

Riddle also explained his decision to allow a second officer involved in the stop, Daniel Crocker, to remain employed with the department. He said both men were relatively new hires, but Gutierrez was an experienced officer whereas Crocker was a recent police academy graduate still undergoing training.

He credited Crocker with making efforts to deescalate the situation and said that he had “little doubt that with some additional training” Crocker would make a good officer.

The Virginia State Police is investigating the incident, along with the FBI, and Attorney General Mark Herring has launched his own investigation to determine whether there is a pattern of discriminatory stops in the town.

“I invite it,” Riddle said. “There’s nothing there for them to find.”

Asked if he believed Nazario deserved an apology, Riddle said no, telling reporters that both sides made mistakes. “I just wish he would have complied quickly,” Riddle said.

Isle of Wight NAACP President Valerie Cofer Butler responded that Riddle should resign. “We are calling for the immediate resignation of Chief Rodney Riddle,” she wrote.

This post has been updated to include reaction from the Isle of Wight NAACP.